It seems fair to say that in recent years the notion of “Personal Learning Environments” (PLEs) emerged mainly as a sort of counter-concept to the centralised provision of institutionally owned and controlled landscapes of tools and services in formal education. Fundamentally, it allowed its proponents to address and question the severe limitations of the mainstream approach to the mediation of teaching and studying activities with digital technologies. The emergence and growing dissemination of loosely-coupled, networked tools and services and their surrounding practices in particular inspired some scholars to speculate about a transformation of the monolithic, centralised systems that dominated and are still dominating formal education. Downes (2005), for example wrote: “The e-learning application, therefore, begins to look very much like a blogging tool. It represents one node in a web of content, connected to other nodes and content creation services used by other students. It becomes… a personal learning center, where content is reused and remixed according to the student's own needs and interests. It becomes, indeed, not a single application, but a collection of interoperating applications - an environment rather than a system” (section on “E-Learning 2.0).

Johnson et al. (2006) suggested that over the years the discourse gradually developed around a number of foci that can be interpreted as an expression of a...
• desire for greater personal ownership of technology and data
• desire for more effective ways of managing technological tools and services
• desire for the integration of technologically mediated activities across all aspects of life
• desire for a removal of barriers to the use and combination of tools and services
• desire for mediated collaboration and co-creation

2. A wide range of interpretations and conceptualisations

There are clear signs that over the years a wide range of conceptualisations and interpretations have surfaced in the ongoing debates and exchanges. Attwell (2007b), for example, reported his experience from some conference event: “…there was no consensus on what a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) might be. The only thing most people seemed to agree on was that it was not a software application. Instead it was more of a new approach to using technologies for learning…” (p. 1). Even this minimal consensus appears to be rather questionable after a thorough literature review on the topic. Kolas and Staupe (2007) also contested that “the variety of interpretation illustrates how diffuse the PLE concept still is” (p. 750). Johnson and Liber (2008) only recently asserted that “within this label, however, a number of practices and descriptions have emerged--not all of which are compatible, and discussions have raged as to the interpretation of the terms …” (p. 3). There is very little indication that this state of affairs has substantially improved or is currently improving.

2.1 Personal learning environments as a concept or approach

Some authors clearly suggest treating the notion of Personal Learning Environments as a concept or approach. Attwell (2007a), for example, states explicitly that “... it is critical that PLEs are being seen as not just a new application of educational technology, but rather as a concept. The development of Personal Learning Environments represents a significant shift in pedagogic approaches to how we support learning processes” (p. 59).

Downes (2007) seems to express a similar view when he writes: “The PLE is a recognition that the ‘one size fits all' approach characteristic of the LMS (Learning Management System) will not be sufficient to meet the varied needs of students. It is, indeed not a software application per se, but is rather a characterisation of an approach to e-learning” (p. 20). He adds that “... the key to understanding the PLE consists not in understanding a particular type of technology so much as in understanding the thinking that underlies the concept…” (p. 20).

Johnson et al. (2006) also seemed to have a rather conceptual perspective in mind: “When examining current technologies, the PLE ‘lens' affords us two key actions, ...it allows us to critique current technologies, situating them in terms of what might be characterised as their ‘PLE compliance'. Secondly, it generates a ‘migration path' to move a current technology from a position of partial PLE-ness to full compliance” (p. 187).

Johnson and Liber (2008) on the other hand got a lot more specific when they suggested that “…the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) concept has emerged within the UK and abroad as a label associated with the application of the technologies of web2.0 and Service Oriented Architecture to education” (p. 3). This particular view seems to be largely shared by Kerres (2007) who claimed that “for the user, this “personal learning environment” is not a separate space on the internet, it is an essential part of the users' workspace. It should be highly integrated with the user's framework of tools for his/her personal use of the internet” (p. 11).

Willson et al. (2006) talked about a design pattern: “The critical design flaws inherent in today's learning systems can be addressed through adopting a new design pattern that shifts emphasis away from the isolated experience of the modular VLE. We characterize this new pattern a Personal Learning Environment, although unlike the VLE this is primarily a pattern concerned with the practices of users in learning with diverse technologies, rather than a category of software” (p. 4). Their vision leaves room for a broader (re-)instrumentation as it is evident in the following quote: “While we have discussed the PLE design as if it were a category of technology…, in fact we envisage situations where the PLE is not a single piece of software, but instead the collection of tools used by a user to meet their needs as part of their personal working and learning routine. So, the characteristics of the PLE design may be achieved using a combination of existing devices (laptops, mobile phones, portable media devices), applications (newsreaders, instant messaging clients, browsers, calendars) and services (social bookmarkservices, weblogs, wikis)…” (p. 9).

2.2 Personal learning environments as technological systems or tool collections

Some authors like Harmelen (2006) were even more explicit and suggested that “…as such, a PLE is a single user's e-learning system that provides access to a variety of learning resources, and that may provide access to learners and teachers who use other PLEs and/or VLEs… “ (p. 815). This technological view is shared by Kolas and Staupe (2007) who state that “in order to meet the requirements of a PLE, a powerful computer architecture is needed, where it is easy to locate resources based on context and needs. There should also be a powerful search- and navigation system connected to the architecture. The architecture must ensure relevant, complete and consistent information” (p. 751).”

Dron and Bhattacharya (2007) offered a rather tautological definition: “PLEs are a collection of interoperating applications that together form an individual's learning environment”, while Milligan et al. (2006) seemed to envision a particular set of tools: “In a Personal Learning Environment (PLE), the learner would utilise a single set of tools, customised to their needs and preferences inside a single learning environment” (p. 507). They also suggest “a key technological component …is the use of Web Services” (p. 508). They also emphasise a Service Oriented Approach (SOA) and the importance of the issue of interoperability. However, Milligan et al. (2006) also acknowledge that “…what differentiates a Personal Learning Toolkit from any other type of tool is difficult to pin down in terms of features alone; the critical factors are primarily in how the system is used, by whom, and in the context of use” (p. 509). Nevertheless, these authors also suggested that one should have a look at a “wide range of tools and sites that exhibit what we felt were characteristics useful in a PLE context…” (p. 509). In fact, they surveyed a number of ICT tools and identified 77 recurring patterns of use that they further categorised into nine distinct groups. They further identified a number of key services that recur in the patterns. Together, these use patterns and services make up their PLE Reference model. This reference model was used to create two PLE toolsets (a standalone desktop application and a portal based solution). Severance et al. (Severance et al., 2008), for example, see personal learning environments married to the tools and services that are commonly labelled Web 2.0: “PLEs start with the current and expanding capabilities of the World Wide Web, especially those referred to often as ‘Web 2.0' capabilities, those involving individual site customization of appearance, resource feeds, tools and tool placement, and increasingly group or social interactions, and add organizing mechanisms and tools focused on educational efforts to produce an environment that can be optimized for learning” (p. 48)

This exemplary and impressionistic summary certainly serves to illustrate the overarching tendency to discuss personal learning environments either exclusively in relation to the current developments of Web technologies, or to even reduce it to a mere synonym for some sort to technological system or set of tools. If scrutinised, the claim of some authors that the term should be rather understood as a “concept” or “approach” and not as technology, often appears to be little more than lip service. Altogether, the current state of the literature on personal learning environments suffers from a wide range of, partially incommensurable, interpretations and conceptualisations.